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Authors: Charles Sheffield

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Proteus Unbound

BOOK: Proteus Unbound
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Proteus Unbound

Charles Sheffield

This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 1989 by Charles Sheffield
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.
Baen Publishing Enterprises
P.O. Box 1403
Riverdale, NY 10471
eISBN: 978-1-61824-053-8

My special thanks to Drs. David Brin and Robert Forward, who made many valuable suggestions and even seem to agree with me that entropy can be interesting.


"S = k.log W"

Epitaph of Ludwig Boltzmann (1844-1906),
carved on his tombstone in Vienna


"When change itself can give no more
'Tis easy to be true."
—Sir Charles Sedley

They found Behrooz Wolf on the lowest levels of Old City, in a filthy room whose better days were far in the past.

In the doorway, Leo Manx paused. He looked at the sweating, moldy walls and cobwebbed ceiling, gagged at the rank smell, and retreated a step. The floor of the room was covered with old wrappers and scraps of food. The man behind pushed on through. He was grinning for the first time since they had met. "There's a breath of Old Earth for you. Still sure you want him?"

"I have to have him, Colonel. Orders from the top." Manx tried to breathe shallowly as he moved forward. He knew Hamming was goading him, as everyone had done since he had arrived on Earth and explained what he wanted. Manx ignored Hamming; the mission was too important to let small issues get in the way.

The furnishings were minimal: a single bed, a food tap, a sanitary unit, and one padded chair. As Manx moved farther inside, the stink became stronger; it was definitely coming from the man slumped in that chair. Bald, sunken-eyed, and filthy, he stared straight ahead at the life-size holograph of a smiling blond woman that covered most of one spotted and water-stained wall. The lower part of the holograph displayed a verse of poetry in letters three inches high.

Ignoring both the man and the 'graph, Colonel Hamming crouched to inspect a little metal box on the floor next to the chair. Plaited braids of multicolored wires ran from the box to the electrodes on the seated man's scalp. Hamming peered at the settings, his nose just a couple of inches away from the control knobs.

"You're in luck. It's so-so, a medium setting."

Manx stared at the seated man's lined, grimy neck. "Meaning what?"

"Meaning he's been emptying his bladder and his bowels when he needs to, and maybe he ate something now and again, so he shouldn't need surgery or emergency care. But he won't have bothered with much else."

"So I see." Leo Manx examined the man with more disgust than curiosity, knowing that in a few more minutes he might have to touch that greasy, mottled skin. "I thought Dream Machines were illegal."

"Yeah. So's cheating on taxes. All right, Doc, tell me when you're ready. When I turn this off, he may get nasty. Violent. Losing all his nice dream reinforcement. I've got a shot ready."

"Don't you want to check that we have the right man before we begin? I mean, I've seen pictures of Behrooz Wolf, and this—he's—well . . ."

The security man was grinning again. "Not quite up to your expectations? Don't forget Wolf is seventy-three years old. You've probably only seen pictures when he's on a conditioning program. We'll check the chromosome ID if you like, but I'll vouch for him without that. It's not the first time, you know. He did this three other times, before he was kicked out as head of the Office of Form Control. He always comes here, and he always looks pretty much like this. Never quite so far gone before. When he still had his official position, we came and got him earlier. Can't let a government bureaucrat die on the job."

"You mean this time, if I hadn't asked to find him . . ."

"You, or someone else." Hamming shrugged. "I don't know how you Cloudlanders do it," he said, contempt in his voice, "but here on Earth a free citizen can die any damn way he chooses. Get ready, now—I'm pulling the plug. We'll go cold turkey."

Manx hovered impotently near as the security officer flipped four switches in quick succession, then ripped taped electrodes from the bald scalp. There was no sound from the biofeedback unit, but the man in the chair shivered, gasped, and suddenly sat upright. He stared wildly around him.

"Wolf. Behrooz Wolf," Manx said urgently. "I must talk—"

"Grab his other arm," Hamming ordered. "He's going to pop."

The man was already on his feet, glaring about with bloodshot eyes. Before Leo Manx could act, Behrooz Wolf had spun around to pull free and was feebly reaching for him with scrawny, taloned hands. The security officer was ready. He fired the injection instantly into Wolf's neck and watched calmly as the scarecrow figure froze in its tracks. Hamming waved a hand in front of Wolf's face and nodded as the eyes moved to follow it.

"Good enough. He's still conscious. But he has no volition; he'll do what we tell him." Hamming was already turning to pack away the cables in the compact biofeedback kit. "Let's get him aloft and dump him into his own form-control unit before he starts to get lively again."

Manx could not take his eyes away from the frozen tormented face. Behrooz Wolf was still glaring at the hologram, not interested in anything else. "Do you think that the form-control unit will work? He has to
it to. He seems to want to die."

"We'll have to wait and see. Hell, you can't
somebody want to live. You'll know in a few hours. Carry the feedback unit, would you?" Hamming took Wolf's arm and began to walk him toward the door. "Oops. Mustn't forget her. It's the first thing he'll want if he makes it through the form-control operation." He detoured to the wall and pointed to the verse. "That's the way Wolf was feeling. And here—" He poked the projection of the woman in her bare navel. "—is the reason for it."

Manx read the verse below the picture.

My thoughts hold mortal strife; I do detest my life,
And with lamenting cries, peace to my soul to bring,
Oft call that prince which here doth monarchize,
But he, grim-grinning king,
Who caitiffs scorns, and doth the blest surprise,
Late having decked with beauty's rose his tomb,
Disdains to crop a weed, and will not come.

"Gloomy thoughts. What does it mean?"

"Damned if I know. Wolf was always a nut for old-fashioned things—poetry, plays, history, useless crap like that. He must have thought the poem applied to him."

"That's terrible. He must have loved her very much to break down like this when he lost her."

"Yeah." Hamming had switched off the projection unit and put the cube into his pocket. He shrugged. "It's odd. I knew her, and she wasn't much of a looker. Good in bed, I guess."

"How long ago did she die?"

"Die? You mean Mary there?" Hamming had taken hold of Wolf's arm again and was leading him firmly out of the room. He gave a coarse, loud laugh. "Who mentioned
Mary Walton is alive and well. Didn't you know? She dumped him! Buggered off to Cloudland with one of your lot, some guy she met on a lunar cruise. Me, I'd have said good riddance to her, but he took it different. Come on, let's get Wolf up to his tank. I've had enough stink for today."


"A message is not a message until the rules for interpreting it are in the hands of the receiver."
—Apollo Belvedere Smith

They would not go away. There was nothing to see, nothing to hear, nothing to taste, to touch, or to feel. Nothing. And yet there were the voices, whispering, prompting, nudging, cajoling, commanding.

That way.
It was a generalized murmur.
That's where you are going.

"No. I don't want to change." He struggled, unable to move or speak as he tried to identify the source of the sounds. The argument had been going on inside him forever, and he was losing. The voices were invading him micrometer by micrometer.

This way. This way. Change.
They were ignoring his wish to rest, pulling him, pushing him, twisting him, turning him inside out. He could feel them in every cell, growing stronger and more confident.
A trillion voices merged. Blood rushed through clogged arteries, organic detergents washing the dry, inelastic skin, the weak, flabby muscles, and the old, tired sinews.
Liver and spleen and kidneys and testicles, ion balances on a roller coaster, local temperatures anomalously high or low—
too high, too low. He was dying . . . Change.
The delicate balance of endocrine glands: testes and thyroid and adrenals and pancreas and pituitary. All disturbed, homeostasis lost, desperately seeking a new equilibrium.
Change. Change. CHANGE.

He cried out, a silent scream.
"Leave me alone."
The intruders ran wild in every cell. He was helpless, fainting, fading before the assault of a chemical army.

All over his body: fluctuations in thermodynamic potentials, in kinetic reaction rates, hormonal levels; energy rushing to dormant follicles, sloughing old tissues, redefining organic functions, thrusting along capillaries. A ferment of cellular renewal boiled within the changing skin.
Solvents along sluggish veins and arteries, the sluice of plaquey deposits, the whirl of fats and cholesterol . . .
Liver, spleen, kidneys, prostate, heart, lungs, brain . . .
Fires along nerves, synapses sparking erratically, spasms of motor control, floods of neurotransmitters, flickering lightnings of pain, crashing thunderstorms of sensation, signals flying from reticular network to cerebral cortex to hypothalamus to dorsal ganglia. A clash of arms at the blood-brain barrier . . .

And then, suddenly, all voices merged to one voice and faded, weakening, withdrawing, drifting down in volume. He could hear it clearly. He listened to the murmur of that dying voice and at last recognized it. Knew it. Knew it exactly. It was the mechanical echo of his own soul whispering final commands through the computer link: his physical profile, amplified a billionfold, transformed in the biofeedback equipment to a set of chemical and physiological instructions, and fed back as final commands.

The tide was ebbing. The changes shivered to a halt. In that moment, senses returned. He heard the surge of external pumps and felt the wash of amniotic fluids as they drained from his naked body. The tank tilted, and the front cracked open, exposing his skin to cold air. There was a sting of withdrawn catheters at groin and nape of neck and a slackening of retaining straps.

He felt a growing pain in his chest and a terrible need for air. As the pertussive reflex took over, he coughed violently, expelling gelatinous fluid from his lungs and taking in a first ecstatic, agonizing breath. Its cold burn inside him was simultaneous with the sudden full opening of the tank. Harsh white light hit his unready retinas.

He shivered, threw up his forearm to protect his eyes, and sagged back in the padded seat. For five minutes he moved only to lean forward and cough up residual sputum. Finally he summoned his strength, stood up, and stepped out of the tank. He staggered forward two steps, caught his balance, and stood swaying. As soon as he was sure of his own stability he reached for the towel that hung ready by the tank, wrapped it around his waist, and turned back to the form-change tank itself. Another moment to gather his will, then he gripped the door and swung it firmly closed.

It was a final, ritual step, his first choice after the unspoken decision to live. He was rejecting the idea of tranquilizing drugs to ease the rigors of transition. Instead he walked across the room to a full-length mirror and stared hard at his own reflection.

The glass showed a nearly naked man about thirty years old, dark-haired and dark-eyed, of medium height and build. The new skin on his body still bore a babyish sheen, though it was pale and wrinkled from long immersion. Soon it would smooth and mature to deep ivory. The face that peered back at him was thin-nosed and thin-mouthed, with a cynical downward turn to the red lips and thoughtful, cautious eyes.

He examined himself critically, working his jaw, lifting an eyelid with a forefinger to inspect the clear, healthy white around the brown iris, peering inside his mouth at his teeth and tongue, and finally rubbing his fingers along his renewed hairline. He flexed his shoulders, inflated his chest to the full, moved his neck in an experimental roll back and forth, and sighed.

"And here we are again. But why bother?" He spoke very softly to his reflection. " 'What a piece of work is a man. How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty. In form, in moving, how express and admirable. In action, how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god. The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals.' "

"Very good, Mr. Wolf," said a silky and precise voice from the communications device in the corner of the room. "The Bard wrote it, and perhaps he believed it. But do you?"

BOOK: Proteus Unbound
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